The RBS privatisation is set to be Osborne's version of selling off the gold

There needs to be pressure on Osborne to state what success looks like in respect to the £37 billion investment the Government made in two banks, writes VMC Rosario.

A couple of tweets crossed my timeline this morning about a piece from the Guardian last month by former Labour MP Chris Mullin arguing that a readjustment to restore the balance in Gordon Brown reputation. In it he argues that Brown’s handling of the crisis was world leading:

It was the British government's decision, announced on 8 October 2008, to take a controlling interest in three major banks that prompted the Europeans, followed quickly by the Americans, to do likewise. Indeed, the Europeans made no secret of this. A few days after the British had acted Brown was invited to address the 15 eurozone heads of government.

How we view the decisive action Gordon and Alastair took on the banks will be coloured by the decisions the current Chancellor, George Osborne, takes on the publicly-held stakes in Lloyds TSB and RBS either later this month in his Budget statement (or later this year as the Spending Review and possible Winter Statement come into view).

It’s clear that some sort of decision is being put together in haste. Stories in media earlier this month were that Osborne was doing some clarification about how the Government could divest its stock: either if a share price of 73.6p has been reached for a given period of time or the Government has sold at least 33% of its shareholding at prices above 61p.

This week the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, told the Banking Standards Commission that the Government should sell the banks:

The whole idea of a bank being 82 per cent-owned by the taxpayer, run at arms’ length from the Government, is a nonsense.

It cannot make any sense. I think it would be much better to accept that it should have been a temporary period of ownership only, to restructure the bank and put it back.

That has certainly piled pressure on Osborne to act. Now it seems Treasury ministers are planning to stage a "Tell Sid"-style cut price sell-off of shares to the public. That Policy Exchange are going to pronounce on the idea in a couple of weeks time gives it credence but it could potentially give Osborne a distracting announcement for an otherwise depressingly meagre Budget statement.

Osborne has form on doing something seemingly clever but ultimately foolish. Still, if he does go with a public sell-off he can take comfort in the cover the Liberal Democrat-leaning think tank Centre Forum will have given him in floating something similar but crucially different last year. Tim Montogomerie was picking up something similar even earlier.

Eye-catching ideas to one side there needs to be pressure on Osborne to state what success looks like in respect to the £37 billion investment the Government made in these two banks.

With banks "stabbing businesses in the back" in respect to lending, the banking reform bill still in draft and the banking standards commission still considering a wide range of issues relating the banks, playing politics with £37 billion looks like an awfully big risk.

This is especially true given just how Osborne has made considerable mileage out of bashing Gordon Brown for costing the taxpayer "£9 billion by selling the gold cheap".  If the now-Chancellor was keen for the taxpayer to pay attention to the bottom line then he should expect just as much scrutiny this time around.

Secondly, a public sell off which puts money in the hands of ordinary people is potentially something Labour should applaud, if a fair investment can actually be shown to reach ordinary people. Frankly if the chief executive of Lloyds TSB is going to make £1.4m out of any share sell-off, then it has got to be worth more that a token gesture for "Sid".  That’s especially important when saving the banks has overall cost every man, woman and child £20,000.

Labour should be holding Clegg and Cable to the principle that any effort should "socialise the profit" and ensure that the Government (in serious need finance-wise) does not sell the family silver off cheap.

If after investing £37bn to save banks there is nothing but a continuing litany of appalling behaviour when it comes to bonuses, Libor, bank charges, and lending—not to mention the lack of visible reform— then George and David will need to be clear about what they’ve achieved in finishing what Gordon and Alistair needed to start. 

Photograph: Getty Images.

V M C Rozario is a pseudonymous former housing professional and a member of Generation Rent.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle